Education Matters: The definition of dysfunctional


The word “dysfunctional” has been used repeatedly to describe the San Dieguito Union High School District’s Board of Education.

It’s even been said that dysfunction at the board level is the biggest problem facing San Dieguito.

But there is a difference, a significant difference, between a board that does not always agree on issues and a board that’s dysfunctional.

In my decades (gulp) of covering local school districts, with focus for the past six to eight years on San Dieguito, I believe that dysfunctional is the wrong word to use for a divided board.

Divided boards are not dysfunctional simply because board members have differing opinions. Dysfunction describes when work is stymied, nothing can be accomplished, and the smooth functioning of the board is impaired.

A divided board can offer checks and balances for competing viewpoints. Positions aired respectfully have a positive effect on creating thoughtful discussions and reasoned conclusions.

Because San Dieguito’s board often votes 3-2 or 4-1 does not by definition mean it’s dysfunctional.

In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that a board that always votes 5-0 is perhaps more dysfunctional because alternative viewpoints are dissuaded or even silenced.

A rubber-stamp board offers no opportunity for varied perspectives to be aired, provides no comfort to those who might have differing opinions, and gives special interests free rein to promote personal agendas.

I will grant that SDUHSD board meetings have frequently become chaotic and acrimonious, but that has more to do with audience behavior than the statements or actions of board members.

What has given the impression that the board is dysfunctional has been the inability of the board presidents and staff to control their meetings and admonish or even eject violators of proper protocol.

There have been far too many occasions when it’s been embarrassing to sit in the boardroom and listen to outbursts from audience members. This gives the false impression that the board is out of control.

The boardroom may be out of control, but not the board members.

In contrast, when board members speak, it’s generally with respect and thoughtful presentation of their positions.

To be clear, there is a serious difference of opinion on important issues among the five school board members, no doubt about that. And frustration is sometimes evident.

But the raucous state of affairs that characterizes many of San Dieguito’s board meetings is not the result of bad conduct by board members.

On those rare occasions when SDUHSD board meetings are sparsely attended, there’s no fire and fury. There are certainly many divided votes on agenda items, but that does not mean the board is dysfunctional.

A board that consistently votes 5-0 does not serve the public interest well. If people do not feel free to air their views, views that might run up against special interests or personal alliances, then that board has ceased to allow for a free exchange of ideas and is no longer a place where varied viewpoints are welcomed.

School board members have two primary jobs – to maintain the fiscal health of the district and to hire and review the superintendent. That’s pretty much it. Civility and respect among peers for trustees goes without saying.

Trustees are charged with overseeing the work of the superintendent and providing guiding principles for her or him to follow. The superintendent should be someone who can secure the confidence of the public by putting the interests of students first.

If board members don’t feel the superintendent is executing his or her responsibilities appropriately, then greater direction needs to be given. But it is not a school board member’s job to run the inner workings of the district.

I understand public frustration over issues constituents feel are of vital importance. And I realize that you have to break eggs to make an omelet. But you don’t break eggs by throwing them at people.

Civility is a two-way street.

Occasionally there have been moments when board members lose their tempers or make statements that ignite either their base of support or those who stand against them. But these moments have often been fueled by audience or speaker comments that pass the bounds of civility.

School board candidates and those who favor one candidate over another need to focus on what’s really troublesome for the future of the district. Fiscal accountability should be at the top of the list.

There are major challenges facing San Dieguito. A dysfunctional board is not one of them.

Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at